Live Book Talk with Bettye Kearse
Kearse traces her family’s history from the antebellum South to present-day California and Boston and investigates long-standing claims that she and her relatives are descended from U.S. president James Madison in this evocative and probing debut. According to family legend, Kearse is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of the founding father and an enslaved woman named Coreen.

Writing in the African tradition of the griot (oral historians and storytellers who serve “as human links between past and present”), Kearse begins her inquiry with a box of heirlooms including “a smudged copy of an 1860 slave census” listing her great-great grandparents and their 10 children. She pays a visit to Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia, where archaeologists are in the midst of excavating the kitchen where Coreen once cooked; travels to slave trading centers in Lagos, Portugal, and Ghana; imagines the wrenching ordeals of her first ancestor to be brought from West Africa to America; and relates her mother’s experiences growing up in Jim Crow–era Texas.

Though Kearse’s attempts to establish a genetic link to the president—who had no “acknowledged offspring”—are met with “roadblocks,” she succeeds in portraying her family’s tenacious rise in social standing across eight generations. This moving account asks essential questions about how American history gets told.

About the Author

Bettye Kearse is an essayist and retired pediatrician who holds a B.A. in Genetics from the University of California at Berkeley, a Ph.D. in Biology from New York University, and an M.D. from Case Western Reserve University. The Other Madisons is an intimate work of narrative nonfiction that discovers, discloses, and embraces a more inclusive and complete American story. Her commentary, “Our Family Tree Searches for Branches” appeared in the Op-Ed section of the Boston Herald. “Destination Jim Crow,” a personal essay published in the fall 2013 issue of River Teeth, was listed among the notable essays in The Best American Essays 2014 and nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. Another personal narrative, “Mammy Warriors” is included in the anthology Black Lives Have Always Mattered (2Leaf Press, 2017).

Event Timing: June 25, 2020, 7:00pm
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